‘Tomorrowland’ Captures Sci-fi’s Shiny Surfaces but Misses Its Geeky Heart

Brad Bird’s message, with which he clubs the audience about the head and shoulders, is that we could have had jet packs, space travel, and all of that by now -- if only we hadn’t stopped believing.

Tomorrowland is a movie about young people finding out that they’re special—not in the “everybody gets a medal for participating” sense, but in the “You’re a wizard, Harry!” sense. Given that it’s directed by Brad Bird, this isn’t surprising. The Incredibles and Ratatouille, his two biggest hits, are about how cool it is to be gifted and how the only thing cooler is having all the people who treated you like crap come to their senses and realize that, wow, you really are gifted.

Tomorrowland is the same song played for a third time, but in a different key. It swaps the brightly-colored comic-book world of The Incredibles and the earth-toned realism of Ratatouille for a chrome-and-glass future filled with spectacular gadgets, breathtaking architecture, and 100-proof optimism about the bright, shiny world that science and technology can create for us. Bird’s message, with which he clubs the audience about the head and shoulders for every one of Tomorrowland’s 210 minutes, is that we could have had that world already—jet packs, space travel, and all—if only we hadn’t stopped believing in it. It’s okay, though, he assures us (this is a Disney movie, after all): We can still have it, if the dreamers in the world will just go back to believing really, really hard in their bright-and-shiny visions of a better world.

At its core—which takes some digging to find, since the plot is filled with gratuitous complication, poorly handled exposition, and awkward pacing—Tomorrowland is the story of a young dreamer named Casey (Britt Robertson, 25, convincingly playing 17) and an old one named Frank (George Clooney, a nice guy, convincingly playing a grump). Frank, we know from a series of early scenes, was once a boy genius who built a jetpack in his garage and wandered, wide-eyed, through the simulated tomorrows on display at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. Casey, we know from another series of early scenes, is an rebellious teen who spends her evenings sabotaging the cranes that are being used to dismantle the NASA launch complex where her father (a rocket engineer in a world with no use for rockets) used to work.

Frank, now a bitter recluse, needs to rediscover his optimism; Casey, all enthusiasm and no direction, needs to find a cause. What they really need, of course, is each other, and so Athena, the robotic girl who serves as the movie’s (literal) deus ex machina, brings them together.

Athena is the creation and the agent of a secretive alliance of genius-level scientists, engineers, and artists who have banded together to build a better future for humankind. Tomorrowland is their workshop—or, more accurately, their sandbox—a glittering, utopian city-of-the-future located in a different dimension and accessible only to those who have been given a special metal badge emblazoned with a stylized “T”.

Frank, led there during that long-ago World’s Fair when anything seemed possible, was Tomorrowland’s most brilliant resident and the world’s brightest hope, until—having lost his idealism and optimism—he was cast out and barred from ever returning. Athena, seeing in Casey what she once saw in a younger Frank, grants her a brief glimpse of Tomorrowland by slipping her the last remaining “T” pin, hoping that the girl will rekindle Frank’s idealism and lead him “home” in time to help save the world.

“Save the world” is, as in so many sci-fi stories, more than just a metaphor. Humankind is, by the time we join the story, hurtling down the road to Armageddon with the accelerator pushed firmly to the floor. Its days are (literally) numbered, unless Casey can help Frank undo decades of personal disillusionment and the pair of them can find a way to make things right, first in Tomorrowland and then back on Earth. That they’ll succeed, and everyone in both dimensions will live happily ever after, is never in doubt for a moment (see: “it’s a Disney movie”), but the way they succeed is deeply unsatisfying.

It’s too quick, too easy, and—especially given the film’s long and convoluted setup—too pat. Clooney, Robertson, and Raffey Cassidy (playing Athena) sell the moment for all they’re worth, and they’re good enough to put a lump in the audience’s collective throat and Kleenexes in more than a few hands. Once the immediate rush of emotion dies away, though, it’s hard not to look at the screen and ask Bird, “Really? That’s your solution?”

Bird’s earlier films The Incredibles and Ratatouille were fantasies that knew they were fantasies. Tomorrowland, on the other hand, is a fantasy that thinks it’s sci-fi. It’s full of spaceships, ray guns, and towering cities where everyone wears jumpsuits and gets around on levitating monorails; lethal robots chase Our Heroes through scene after scene, even if though their presence is never explained in a way that makes sense. The sci-fi tropes aren’t just grabbed off the shelves at random, either; they reflect a deep, detailed knowledge of sci-fi history.

When young Frank’s test “flight” of his homemade jetpack sends him bouncing across the ground like a skipped stone and into a nearby corn field, its an homage to Disney’s 1991 SF-adventure story The Rocketeer. The proprietor of a retro-futuristic memorabilia store Casey visits is named Hugo Gernsback, after the late-’20s pulp-magazine editor who established sci-fi as a genre. The invention of Frank’s that plays a key role in the plot comes straight out Robert A. Heinlein’s 1939 short story “Lifeline”, which inaugurated his genre-defining “Future History” series and helped to usher in the legendary Golden Age of Science Fiction.

These references, along with the look-and-feel of Tomorrowland itself, root the film in a very specific moment in the history of the genre: the decade or so before World War II. The film uses the New York World’s Fair of 1964-65 as its symbol of a lost golden age—the right choice, given Clooney’s age—but its heart is in the world’s fairs of the ’30s.

The difference matters, because Bird’s message (“Scientists will save us, and if then don’t then it’s because we failed them.”) is a product of that more innocent world. It echoes the motto of the Century of Progress Exhibition held in Chicago in 1933-34: “Science Discovers, Technology Applies, Man Conforms”. Part of Tomorrowland’s underlying problem is that we are not those people, and we don’t live in that world. Los Alamos and Bikini Atoll are no longer just names on a map to us; chlorofluorocarbons in our refrigerators and tetraethyl lead in our gasoline no longer seem like “better living through chemistry”. We have seen too much for the wide-eyed techno-optimism of the ’30s to feel comfortable. We have learned to approach scientists’ promises of a better world the way Reagan approached Gorbachev’s proposals on arms control: “Trust … but verify.”

“Scientists save the world”—the underlying story Tomorrowland wants to tell—is one of the ur-narratives of classic sci-fi. Here again, though, Bird gets the surfaces beautifully right but the nuances utterly wrong. All the characters—even Casey, who’s supposed to be a genius on the order of Edison or Tesla—respond to Tomorrowland like tourists at the world’s coolest theme park: they gawk, they grin, they move on. None of them bothers to ask—the way Mr. Spock, or Tony Stark, or your average sci-fi fan would—how it works or what else you can do with the technology that makes it work.

Worse, none of them even seem to care about those questions. Given who they’re supposed to be, it makes them, and the film, feel as phony as a three-dollar bill.

The characters don’t care because, in the context of the story that Bird wants to tell, those questions don’t matter. What matters, instead, is that the characters are special, that they believe in the power of their dreams, and that we believe in them.

All that would be fine if Tomorrowland was meant a fantasy story, where “just believing” can get you to Neverland, or home from Oz (if you’re silly enough to want to leave). Sci-fi, though, plays by different genre rules. The science and technology that drive the plot can be real (as in The Martian) or double talk (as in Star Trek), but it has to feel like a fully worked-out part of the characters’ world—not just pixie dust and ruby slippers by another name. Tomorrowland, which never comes to close to feeling that way, captures sci-fi’s shiny surfaces but misses its geeky heart.

The two-disc Tomorrowland release reviewed here includes DVD and Blu-Ray discs as well as a code redeemable for digital HD download of the film. Bonus features include eight deleted scenes, featurettes on the casting and scoring of the film, an interview with director Brad Bird discussing the film, and several fictional shorts—a television commercial, an animated explanation of the origins of Tomorrowland, and outtakes from a ’50s-era science-documentary series—from the film’s universe.

RATING 5 / 10